Friday, October 22, 2010

Chase Coverage: Martinsville Preview

Green white checker finish at Martinsville spring race.
(John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)

We're over the halfway mark in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and what could be better than some short-track racing? The Cup drivers head to Martinsville for race #6 in the playoffs.

Get ready for some beating and banging as the 12 Chase drivers try to get every point that they can. With 77 points separating the top three drivers, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, some have already called it a three-man battle. Especially at a track referred to by many as Johnson's and Hamlin's playground - the two share 9 wins between them here. But fourth-place Jeff Gordon's 156-point deficit is possible to make up, especially at a track where he leads all drivers in wins (7).

Here's what our 12 contributors have to say about the Chasers' chances this weekend at the "paperclip." Come back Tuesday for a recap of how they fared.

1.) Jimmie Johnson- Starting 19th - Rebecca Kivak
Six races into the Chase, points leader Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team head to yet another track where they've had great success: Martinsville. The four-time Sprint Cup champion has six wins at the "Pretty Paperclip," the second-most of all active drivers.

In 17 starts, Johnson has 12 top 5s, 16 top 10s and two poles at Martinsville. He has an average finish of 5.4, the best all-time in the series. He leads all drivers with a driver rating of 123.8 and has led 1,551 laps at the 0.526-mile track.

This weekend gives Johnson an opportunity to add to his win total at Martinsville, but it won't come without a fight from second seed Denny Hamlin, who trails Johnson by 41 points in the Chase standings. The two have combined to win the last eight races at the short track, with Johnson claiming five of those victories. As Johnson and the 48 team will do everything they can to maximize their points, we may be in for a thrilling battle to the finish.

“Who I wouldn’t want next to me (on the final restart) — man I guess whoever would be second in points,” Johnson said this week. “We’re going to be gouging for every single point at that part of the race and the way the points are stacked up, the top-five are all guys that are really good at Martinsville. It could be exciting.” 

2.) Denny Hamlin - Starting 1st (pole) - Holly Machuga
Going into Martinsville, Denny Hamlin is 41 points behind Jimmie Johnson and second overall. After his fourth-place finish at Charlotte last weekend, the No. 11 team is feeling pretty good about their chances at this year's Sprint Cup championship.

Martinsville is a very, very good track for Hamlin. He has three wins, one pole and his average finish is a 6.6. This is Denny's "home track"  (he grew up in Virginia). He has won twice in a row here - earlier this year and last year's Chase race at Martinsville. Needless to say, Denny and the FedEx Racing team dominate here.

Is Denny worried about Jimmie? Not at all. Not yet. "He's a champion, and I'm not," Hamlin said. "He's figured this stuff out, and he's got a great team, as well as we do, but I haven't hit the 'go' button yet, and I feel like there's still more left with our team. I'm minimizing my risk right now, and I feel like, if I'm going to have a shot to win this thing when we get to Homestead [the season finale], I've got to minimize those risks."

He's playing it safe, but at the same time Denny is showing the NASCAR world what he's got. Potentially, he is championship material.

3.) Kevin Harvick – Starting 36th - Amber Arnold
Kevin Harvick rolls into Martinsville third in the Sprint Cup standings. While Harvick looks to close in on Johnson and Hamlin for the points lead, he is going to have to step up his performance on the half-mile track.

In 18 races, Harvick has no poles, wins or top 5s. He has 7 top 10s and an average finish of 18.1. He has a sixth-best driver rating of 90.1 on the Virginia track. On a track where Johnson and Hamlin both have average finishes of 5th or better, Harvick has his work cut out for him this weekend if he hopes to gain any ground on the two drivers ahead of him in the championship race. It seems to be a common trend for the 29 team this season: they might be down but they certainly aren’t out.

4.) Jeff Gordon – Starting 11th - Genevieve Cadorette
An exciting weekend lies ahead for Jeff Gordon with possibilities of records being tied. Winning this weekend's race at Martinsville will not only help Gordon's points for the Chase to the Sprint Cup, but it’ll also help his team Hendrick Motorsports tie with Petty Enterprises with 19 wins at the short track.

If Gordon had won the pole this weekend, he would have tied Darrell Waltrip, who has the record high of eight poles. Mark Martin, Waltrip and Gordon have won three consecutive poles in Martinsville. 

Gordon has won seven races in Martinsville, one time more than Jimmie Johnson, and leads all drivers in wins.

After an upset finish last weekend, heading to Martinsville may be what Gordon needs to finish with high points. Although he is in fourth place, he still trails his leader significantly.

On the positive side, he’s also finished in fifth place 23 times, with 11 of those being consecutive, and he scored 29 top-10 finishes. He has led 2,888 laps, the highest among his competitors today.

5.) Kyle Busch - Starting 26th - Lindi Bess
Martinsville won’t be without its difficulties. Finishing good at this track will be the culmination of good efforts by Kyle, his crew and a car that can make it to the end. Rowdy is given the task of qualifying good for both track position and a decent pit stall where he can easily move on and off pit road. His pit crew must be flawless with their performance times and their problem-solving abilities. Then there is the brake package, which must be without failure, in order to drive these racecars at high speeds and have enough left to finish 500+ laps.

How do you approach Martinsville since track position is so important there?
"It's just a short racetrack and you've got to try to have a good car. But it's hard to have a good car there with the field as tight as it is. Qualifying up front seems to help out a little bit. We know who the guys are who are going to be tough there. Really, there's nothing you can change about that racetrack to stay out of trouble. Basically, you can be leading the race and have a wreck in front of you while you are trying to lap some guys and that could be it."

Kyle heads into Martinsville, one of three tracks on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit where he has yet to visit Victory Lane. Kyle is in the fifth position, 177 points out of first, in the Chase standings. Both crew chief Dave Rodgers and Busch proved to themselves that they were capable of a win at the Martinsville "paperclip" in March of this year, when the #18 settled for a 22nd-place finish due only to a caution.

With 11 starts, 5256 of 5519 laps completed (95.2%), 120 laps led, Kyle has a driver’s rating of 89.9 at this track. His average start of 15.3, average finish of 17.8, 4 top 5s, 5 top 10s and 1 DNF.

6.) Tony Stewart – Starting 6th - Unique Hiram
Tony Stewart and the #14 Office Depot/Old Spice race team are heading to Martinsville, Va., for the sixth race of the Sprint Cup Chase. Although they have dropped to 6th in the points standings, there is always the
chance for them to bounce back if they have a well-handling car and if the other Chase drivers have some major issues.

There are some significant statistics that have been obtained by Stewart over the span of his 23 career Sprint Cup starts at this particular track. Smoke has obtained two wins, three poles, eight top 5s, 13 top 10s and a total of 1,193 laps led. Additionally, he currently holds the track qualifying record of 19.306 seconds at 98.093 mile per hour. He sits third with the most laps led at this track among active drivers, behind Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson respectively.

Stewart has been noted to thoroughly love racing at this track and he had this to say: "It's still that old short track feel. That's what I like. We run a lot of 1.5-mile tracks during the year and it's the only place that races like this. We've got tow half-mile tracks that we race on.  This one's quite a bit different than Bristol, and that's what makes it fun. You can out-brake guys and you can run the outside if you get a shot. It's racing the way we all grew up racing."

Crew Chief Darian Grubb is looking to make sure that Stewart's race car is competitive enough to challenge for the win and this is his thoughts on what it would take to accomplish that goal: "It's all about weight distribution and then comfort for the driver - getting everything exactly the way the driver would like to have it. His preference for every little detail from entry to the center of the corner and exit and braking, the throttle application - everything has to be just right, because Martinsville is all about rhythm."

This duo along with the race team will definitely do everything in their power to make sure that performance is at optimal level because even though they may have taken a hit last week - they will be coming
out swinging this week. As the old saying goes - "It ain't over until the fat lady sings" and in this case it will not be over until all of the races have been run in the Sprint Cup Chase.

7.) Carl Edwards – Starting 7th - Amanda Ebersole
Up next on the schedule is Martinsville, and many unknowns! As most of us know, Martinsville is a track that is both demanding on the car and driver. Wear on the brakes in common and drivers are in tight spaces on the track and we can expect to see tempers flare.

Carl Edwards' stats at Martinsville include one top 5 and three top 10 finishes. A surprising fact: Carl has led no laps at this track. (There are only two tracks where he hasn’t led laps, here and also at Watkins Glen). In his 12 previous races, Carl has an average start of 18th and an average finish of 17th.  His best finish is credited to a 3rd-place finish in October 2008.

Bob Osborne, crew chief for the number 99 Aflac Ford Fusion, is taking a car that was previously raced at Loudon and had an 11th place finish there. Bob’s thoughts on Martinsville: “It’s a difficult place to get the car handling just right and the driver has to be patient in traffic to save the brakes. It’s a very long race so you can’t wear out your brakes in the first half of the race. Martinsville is a good track for Denny (Hamlin) and Jimmie (Johnson) so we will need to be on top of our game there, on the track and in the pits, if we hope to gain any ground on them in the points.”

Carl knows that Martinsville can be chaos and his thoughts are, “Martinsville is so tough, especially with the double-file restarts. It’s kind of a chaotic moment when you go down into turn one and it really depends who is over-aggressive, who bumps who, how things shake out. If everybody runs like they should, it’s really hard to pass people two-wide at Martinsville already.” 

8.) Greg Biffle - Staring 3rd - Stacie Ball
“The key this weekend will be to get the car to rotate through the center so the driver can get into the gas as soon as possible coming off of the corner. We have been able to run in the top 10 at Martinsville and we just need to be able to do that this weekend. As always, qualifying well will be extremely important because it is generally easier to stay up front at Martinsville than to get up front at Martinsville.” That's what crew chief Greg Erwin said the No. 16 3M Ford needs to do at Martinsville Speedway, the sixth race of the Chase for the Cup, after finishing fifth at Charlotte Motor Speedway last Saturday night.

Two top 10s with an average of 22.3 in 15 races really does not give a driver hope, especially when he knows this is the worst track for him. What will he need to do to overcome it this weekend? Biffle says, “Well, it’s obvious by looking at my stats that Martinsville has been a tough place for me. We’ve had a few decent runs there but getting your car to turn can make the difference between a fun race at Martinsville and a long day at Martinsville. When the car is turning and you can get off of the corners on the gas, the race at Martinsville can be one of the most fun races of the season but when it won’t turn or your brakes a failing, it is probably my least favorite track on the circuit. I would say our goal this weekend is to leave Martinsville with a top-10 finish like we did in the spring.”

From looking at the statistics of Greg Biffle at Martinsville Speedway, this is definitely not a good track for him. With 12° banking in the turns, what challenge do you think it could bring a driver who has only had two top 10s in his 15 starts at the "Pretty Paperclip"? After the comeback at CMS, you just never know what you will see until you watch the practices along with the qualifying. 

9.) Kurt Busch - Starting 29th - Katy Lindamood
Katy's Internet went out, so her analysis of Kurt will be added as soon as she is able to log online.

10.) Jeff Burton – Starting 18th - Genna Short
While the 31 team has yet to win this year, Jeff Burton is confident in their chances to do so. It could even happen at Martinsville this week. The “paperclip” track is the shortest on the circuit and Burton holds a good record there.

In the last three races run here, he finished 15th in both races in 2009 and had a dismal 20th place in the 2010 spring race here. Historically, though, the track has been kinder to him than his recent history has shown. He has one win, which came in 1997, 10 top fives, and 14 top 10s at the 0.526-mile track.

It can be a tricky place, though, for someone more inexperienced.

“It's a real balance between overdriving and not driving hard enough and is really a one corner at a time racetrack. You can't think ahead, you gotta be in the moment. Pay attention to what you're doing right now,” Burton said in an interview posted on RCRRacing.com.

“If you do that, that's how you have your best races there. It's real hard to try to plan ahead there, so many things happen, and it's just a matter of being smart, aggressive, consistent. All of those things really mean a lot there.”

Jeff feels that he could possibly gain redemption here from his poor finish back in March. “We had a great shot to win that race. Ended up cutting a right front tire real late but led a lot of that race and thought we had a great opportunity but it got away from us and look to go back and kind of redeem that.”

Jeff Burton could very well wrangle this track and win his first victory here since 1997 this weekend.

11.) Matt Kenseth - Starting 32nd - Whitney Richards
After their great outing at Charlotte Motor Speedway last week where they finished 6th, Matt Kenseth and the Crown Royal Black crew head to Martinsville Speedway in hopes of carrying on that momentum. However, it’s no secret that Kenseth has a strong dislike for the half-mile track. He once likened it to “ racing around two light poles in a mall parking lot.”
 
Despite his dislike for the track, Kenseth has completed 10,409 of 10,519 laps he’s attempted and has led a total of 68 laps in 21 starts. He has an average start of 22.8 and an average finish of 16.3. His best finish is 2nd, which was in April 2002. Kenseth has achieved two top-5s and six top-10s at Martinsville. The team will be bringing chassis RK-704 to the track this weekend. That car was last ran at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
 
While he hasn’t been mathematically eliminated yet, Kenseth is still 11th, 256 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson. However, this will mark race 6 of 10 in the Chase. It will be tough for Kenseth to get himself back into contention again for the championship. He’s been mired in 11th place since the Chase begun, but he can still gain a few positions in the standings before this season ends.

12.) Clint Bowyer - Starting 17th - Amy McHargue
Coming into the Martinsville Tums Fast Relief 500, Clint Bowyer is struggling to keep up. Last week's mediocre finish left Bowyer 300 points behind Chase points leader Jimmie Johnson; Clint is effectively out of the Chase to the Sprint Cup Championship. His season is not over, however. Like all other NASCAR drivers, in the Chase or not, Bowyer has five more races to go in 2010 and he isn't giving up on getting another win or two.

Clint is looking for his first win at Martinsville Speedway. Bowyer has finished in the top five one time and the top 10 on an additional four occasions. In Clint's nine Cup Series starts at this track, he posts a 12.8 average finish; it's going to have to be a better day than average for the Richard Childress #33 team to claim a victory. Bowyer finished in the sixth position in the April race at Martinsville; another top 10 finish would be more than welcome after the struggles the team has experienced throughout the Chase.

Team Bowyer needs to start the weekend with a strong qualifying run on Friday. Clint qualified in the third and fifth positions at Martinsville in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Coming into Sunday's race with a top 10 starting position could help Clint greatly; more often than not this season if Bowyer qualifies in the top 10, he finishes the race in the top 10. Realistically it is feasible that Bowyer can end the 2010 season as high as eighth place in the Chase, but he's got to start racking up the points starting this week.

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